Though No. 10 Westgate provided the thrills of Division-1 playmakers making shifty moves in open space, and more importantly making game-changing plays in the third quarter to create a two-point game in the fourth, it was the No. 2 Neville Tigers who ultimately made the clutch defensive plays late to ensure Neville’s home-playoff win streak remained intact.
Neville hasn’t lost a postseason encounter since 2008, and thanks to plays like cornerback Charles Straughter’s fourth down open-field tackle with only a few minutes to spare, the Tigers kept that streak alive with a 26-24 victory against a dangerous Westgate squad.
“Great defensive effort in the second half,” Neville head coach Mickey McCarty said. “We put the defense in some tight spots, and they responded. It was a great playoff win.”
McCarty believes you can’t be a great playoff team without playing great defense in the second half, and that’s exactly what he got in Friday night’s win in Bill Ruple Stadium.
A muffed punt and interception in the third quarter allowed Westgate to score 10 unanswered points, setting up a dramatic fourth quarter. As Neville fans held their breath, the Tigers defense was called upon, and it answered all night. From defensive lineman Tikey Reese blowing up a run play in the middle to linebacker Javon Carter corralling an interception and blocking a punt to Straughter locking down 4-star wide receiver Kayshon Boutte on the outside, familiar defensive names made play after play. And for players like Straughter, who was tasked to man up the top 2020 wide receiver prospect in the state, Friday night’s assignment was about making a statement.
“LSU commit vs. Grambling commit, so I had to show my skills,” Straughter said. “That’s their go-to guy. I stayed with him the whole way.”
After leading 19-14 at halftime, Neville came out on its opening drive and immediately went to work in the run game. Neville running back Max Hunter ripped off a 27-yard run and Timothy Byrd broke loose on a 14-yard scamper. Neville’s unbalanced look had Westgate’s defense on skates, as the Tigers continued to mix it up with packages that involved backup quarterback Brett Batteford, who scored on a one-yard quarterback power to put the Tigers up, 26-14.
The Tigers forced what looked to be a three-and-out on the ensuing drive, but a roughing the punter and muffed punt set up a two-play, 24-yard scoring drive for Westgate. Neville quarterback Andrew Brister was picked off on the ensuing drive, which led to a 22-yard field goal. Suddenly, the Tigers were hanging on to a two-point lead.
“I felt we had a chance to put the game away in the second half,” McCarty said. “We roughed the punter, and we had a turnover. We had a tough time slowing them down, but our defense did a great job in the fourth quarter.”
The Tigers pass defense in the fourth quarter was exceptional. Westgate quarterback Brennon Landry completed just 7-of-19 passes (37%) for 54 yards in the game. Boutte did his damage on the ground with 85 yards on 13 carries. But in total, the Tigers held Westgate to 210 yards.
Aiding on defense was Carter, who had to come out with a hamstring injury in the first half. After Neville’s medical team worked on him, Carter, who was hobbled a bit in the second half, made one tackle after another in the second half.
“We knew that he certainly wanted to get back out there in the second half, and we were happy to get him back on the field tonight,” McCarty said. “He’s just a playmaker.”
In the first half, Neville trailed only once. After a 32-yard field goal by William Reed, which was set up by Carter’s punt block, the Tigers came out of the gates with a 3-0 advantage.
Westgate took its first lead on the ensuing possession after grinding away on the ground and finishing with a quarterback sneak on the goal line. Neville wouldn’t trail for long.
Brister went to work on his best drive of the night. Hunter, who finished the night with seven catches for 69 yards, hurt Westgate’s defense by sitting down on his route in the middle of the field. Brister also connected with Neville’s tailback on a screen play that went for 12 yards. Hunter led the team in receiving and rushing, as he tacked on another 72 yards on 15 carries.
Neville regained the advantage with an eight-yard strike to Mercurious Chatmon. Brister was six-of-eight on the drive. He finished the night, completing 15-of-27 passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.
The ensuing drive by Westgate ended at Neville’s 35-yard line when the visiting Tigers dialed up a shot down the field to Boutte on a 4th-and-1. Neville loaded the box and left Straughter on an island with Boutte. Westgate took the shot and Straughter stayed in phase to force the incompletion.
Before injuring his knee and having to leave the game, Carter picked off Landry to give the Tigers the football at the 24.
Neville took advantage of the short field on a drive that culminated in a 14-yard touchdown pass to Zeb Ruddell, giving the Tigers a 16-7 lead after the blocked PAT.
Boutte took over on the final Westgate drive of the half, ripping off runs of 14 and 25 yards before Kevion Sophus scored on a seven-yard run.
Reed drilled a 25-yard field goal before the half ended to give the Tigers a 19-14 halftime lead.
Neville is set to host No. 3 (10-2) Edna Karr in the semifinals next Friday in Bill Ruple Stadium.
The Tigers and Cougars have had a postseason rivalry like no other the past decade. Neville was eliminated in the semifinals last season in a 25-13 loss to Edna Karr.
“I’ve been looking forward to it since last year,” Straughter said. “They got us in their house last year, and now they have to come to our house.”
The Tigers have met the Cougars six times in the postseason since 2011. Here are the results of the past decade:
— Karr beat Neville 25-13 in Class 4A semifinals (2018)
— Karr beat Neville 34-21 in Class 4A State Championship (2016)
— Neville beat Karr 45-26 in Class 4A State Championship (2015)
— Neville beat Karr 34-7 in Class 4A quarterfinals (2014)
— Karr beat Neville 29-22 in Class 4A State Championship (2012)
— Neville beat Karr 27-6 in Class 4A State Championship (2011)